Of Fear and Hope – Slow War, by Benjamin Hertwig (2017)

I returned to Benjamin Hertwig’s book of poetry “Slow War,” which I last read in December. At that time I found the language fully assured, and the correlations between places of war and places in Canada remarkable. I am still of this view.

In a more general sense, for there’s a lot of this in current Canadian poetry, this time I found the experimentation with form, and line within form, an impediment. Many poets have taken this simple expedience to expand their work into something seemingly larger and duly portentous. I don’t have a lot of patience with blank space and pages. Fashionable, but meaningless.

Benjamin Hertwig : Slow War (McGill-Queen's University Press, 2017)

Benjamin Hertwig : Slow War (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2017)

Hertwig’s examination of the illusion of religious ethics and practice is, I believe, essential to the acknowledgement of wars fought in the name of faith, and essential to the recognition that unnatural death is what is inflicted by our affliction with ethics that are necessarily incomplete for right action, for such ethics are organizationally engineered and hence political in nature, and thus a pursuit of power.

The book concludes with the specific statement that hope is synteresis, that attribute of conscience that is said to enable the personal determination of what is right and what is wrong, and so indicate what ought to be right action, if action (or inaction) is to apply.  Action can be intellectual as well, of course, and Hertwig also makes this point when, towards the end of his book, he writes “a Bach cantata / makes you almost / forgive / your hands.” Bach makes particular reference to the nature and purpose of hope, in its theological and didactic contexts, in cantatas 21 and 147, where Bach takes the statement to its conclusion by ending on the chorale Jesu, joy of man’s desiring; and in cantata 27, where hope is coupled with the incertitude of the meaning of death and the certitude that it is the bereaved who remain. This is the same context that Brahms takes up in his Ein deutsches Requiem.

Spinoza defines hope as “an inconstant joy, born of an idea of a future or past thing whose outcome we to some extent doubt.” A later corollary to this, with a more applicable precision, is given in the spacious hall scene in the first act of the second part of Goethe’s Faust, where Intelligence states that is it is “Fear and Hope … who keep mankind enslaved.” (Klugheit: Zwei der größten Menschenfeinde, / Furcht und Hoffnung….). This may be harder to accept, but it seems to me a better interpretation of our behavioural psychology, with its propensity to imprudence.

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